The Memory Mavens, Part 7: When Terms Matter

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by Tim Widowfield

In foreign policy, the United States — especially in the last hundred years or so — has tried to have it both ways: assiduously following the Constitution and domestic law, as well as keeping within the dictates of international agreements, while at the same time aggressively maintaining an empire with far-reaching hegemony. In doing so, the executive branch often finds itself carrying out actions that conform to the letter of the law, but would seem to violate its spirit.

Aerial photograph of an SA-2 site in Cuba. Tak...
Aerial photograph of an SA-2 site in Cuba. Taken by RF-101 Voodoo during the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Duck Test

War and diplomacy, domains in which precision in word choice matters, are fertile grounds for Newspeak. Consider, for example, the frequent use of the words “conflict” and “police action” after World War II. The U.S. government has tended to avoid the word “war,” because it has a definite meaning, a specific basis in law. For the U.S., it means that Congress has approved a formal declaration of war against another sovereign state or group of states. The new terms play a role in American “freedom of action” (viz., the use of violence and the constant threat of violence to advance policy) while apparently staying within the boundaries of the law.

Consider, as well, President John F. Kennedy‘s use of the term “quarantine” during the Cuban Missile Crisis, deftly avoiding the word “blockade,” which is a legal term that signifies an act of war. The administration called it a quarantine for diplomatic purposes; however for the purpose of exercising power, it did the job equally well. It quacked like a duck and walked like a duck, but calling it a duck might have precipitated World War III. (As it was, we were closer to doomsday than we realized.)

Finally, consider the terms “detainee” and “unlawful combatant” as used by American administrations in the wars that followed the September 11 terror attacks on U.S. soil. “Prisoners of war” have a distinct status in international law, and all signatories to the Geneva Conventions have agreed to treat those prisoners according to a detailed set of protocols. Yet the Bush administration said that despite the all the quacking and the cloud of feathers, those waddling birds were not ducks.

Terms of Art

In the social sciences as well, we have terms of art that refer to specifically defined concepts, conditions, events, etc. It drives experts in psychology, well, a bit mad when authors in popular media incorrectly use terms like schizophrenia. Notice that I deliberately avoided the word “insane,” since that’s a term of art in both the clinic and the courtroom. It is especially important when writing about a particular subject matter to use terms of art only for their intended purpose. Moreover, if you (unadvisedly) choose to redefine a well-established term of art, then you should clearly state what you’re doing up front.

The realm of memory theory, including the psychological study of personal memory and the sociological study of group memory, has its own terms of art. I offer the following examples.

  • False memory
  • Counter-memory

I present these two here because I have lately seen Memory Mavens misuse them in the similar ways. Specifically, they incorrectly use a term of art to describe a general condition or event. Doing so muddies the water; it confuses the experts who know how the term ought to be used, and it misinforms the general public who trust scholars and expect them to know what they’re writing about.

False Memories of Jesus?

For people working in the field, false memories as opposed to true memories as well as repressed (or even recovered) memories have specific definitions and carry with them an enormous amount of baggage. Mentioning the term false memory among professionals or even moderately informed laypeople will undoubtedly remind them of those connections.

Honorary Memory Maven, Bart Ehrman, is writing a book on memory, and he’s been describing the process over on his blog. In his post entitled “What Is A Memory?” he says:

Just as we can mistakenly remember what happened to us in the past, we can mistakenly remember factual information. In this case, unlike, usually, the case of episodic memory, it is possible to check to see if our memory is right or wrong. If we remember that the capital of France is Barcelona or that the 14th president of the United States was Thomas Jefferson or that UNC won the 2016 national championship in basketball (I *wish*) it would be a false memory, verifiably false.

Memories about Jesus can be false in the same way. They can be recollections of things he said and did that in fact he did not say and do. (Just as if we remember that George Washington delivered the Gettysburg address, it would be a false memory.) [emphasis mine]

Some of you who are familiar with the recent history of psychology and psychiatry already know why Ehrman’s words make me uneasy. At first I thought he was just being loose with his language because of the typically informal nature of a blog post. But now I see that two of his tentative chapter headings have the same problem:

  • Chapter 4: False Memories and the Death of Jesus
  • Chapter 5: False Memories and the Life of Jesus

I agree completely with Ehrman that we can and should identify several different kinds of memory. So when we talk about “a memory,” it can refer to more than just a personal recollection. We have, for example, memories of knowing how to do something (procedural memory) and memories of terms and facts not associated with specific events in our lives (semantic memory). As you recall from previous posts in our Memory Mavens series, we also have collective memory, distinct from any of the individual types of memory listed above.

I agree, as well, with his general point that we can have beliefs about what happened in that past that turn out to be incorrect. We all store in our brains false facts. We think they’re true, but upon further research we discover we were wrong.

What False Memory Means to People Who Know about Memory

The problem, of course, is that false memory is a term of art with specific meanings in psychology and in law, as anyone with a modicum of exposure to memory theory should know. I would encourage anyone reading this post to follow the link to the Skeptic’s Dictionary to get a general lay of the land. For people working in the field, false memories as opposed to true memories as well as repressed (or even recovered) memories have specific definitions and carry with them an enormous amount of baggage. Mentioning the term false memory among professionals or even moderately informed laypeople will undoubtedly remind them of those connections.

We remember, for example, some very high-profile child abuse cases in which it later turned out that people had recounted false memories — horrific things they sincerely believed actually had happened to them — that were in fact planted by overzealous or unscrupulous counselors asking suggestive questions. In The Science of False Memory, Charles Brainerd and Valerie Reyna recount a number of false-memory cases that resulted in wrongful imprisonment, including convictions based on eyewitness testimony.

In 1996, the National Institute of Justice released a study of several documented cases in which, following conviction, defendants were exonerated by DNA evidence. The report concluded that 90% of these wrongful convictions could be traced to a specific type of false-memory report that had been presented as evidence of guilt—namely, positive identifications of innocent suspects by eyewitnesses. (Brainerd and Reyna, 2005, p. 3, emphasis mine)

Even confessions are not immune to this phenomenon. Under the right circumstances, interrogators can coerce people into believing that they committed illegal acts.

During the decade of the 1990s, more than 200 murder confessions were thrown out by courts in Cook County, Illinois. The predominant reason was that the confessions were judged to be based on unreliable memory reports, which had been induced through the use of a variety of suggestive interrogation methods by police investigators. (Brainerd and Reyna, 2005, p. 4, emphasis mine)

Please note that we are not talking about what Dale Allison called the “frailty of human memory” (see chapter one of Constructing Jesus) in which we slowly dissociate, incorrectly associate, or just forget what happened. It is not simply about the well-known and well-established unreliability of memory.

It is essential, at this early stage, to distinguish false memory from the more familiar idea of memory fallibility. Memory, as everyone knows, is an imperfect archive of our experience. Examples are so commonplace that memory fallibility has long been enshrined in the instructions that juries receive about how to interpret sworn testimony. Although witnesses are admonished to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, it is acknowledged that they can only testify to the best of their errant recollective powers. . . . 

When speaking of memory fallibility, the law, laypersons, and researchers alike are usually referring to the erosion of memory through normal forgetting; without the aid of external memory stores (notes, reminders from other people, audio or video recordings), we are able to retrieve only a tiny fraction of the content of our experience as time passes. . . .

However, there is another, less traditional, meaning of memory fallibility—namely, false memory. In its most general sense, false memory refers to circumstances in which we are possessed of positive, definite memories of events—although the degree of definiteness may vary—that did not actually happen to us, as when the defendant in the stabbing case is wrongfully convicted because our witness testifies to having seen the defendant standing behind the victim just before the stabbing, when in fact he saw them on separate occasions, or testifies to having seen the defendant with a knife in his hand when in fact he had seen a hairbrush. It is this second form of memory fallibility—errors of commission rather than omission—that is the focus of the science of false memory and of this book, though we shall see . . . that research has established that the two are related in sensible ways. (Brainerd and Reyna, 2005, p. 4, bold emphasis mine)

The authors also point out that our penchant for creating and retaining false memories is quite normal and common. That is to say, it isn’t a feature of abnormal psychology or a result of some physical damage. Rather, it is part of everyday life. We appear to be wired that way. In fact, research has demonstrated how disconcertingly easy and quickly one can implant false memories.

False Memory Syndrome

False memories are just as “real” as true memories to the people who have them, which has led to some terrible outcomes in courts of law. Partly in response to these miscarriages of justice, a group of affected families and interested professionals created the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. At their website you will see a statement that may sound familiar to Vridar readers:

The professional organizations agree: the only way to distinguish between true and false memories is by external corroboration. (FMSF)

And that’s the case even for memories supposedly revealed through hypnosis. They may be true, but it seems more likely that they’re false.

“The Council finds that recollections obtained during hypnosis can involve confabulations and pseudomemories and not only fail to be more accurate, but actually appear to be less reliable than nonhypnotic recall.”

American Medical Association, Council on Scientific Affairs, Scientific Status of Refreshing Recollections by the Use of Hypnosis, 1985.

When false memories (revealed allegedly as “recovered memories”) affect a person’s relationships with his friends and family or affect his or her self-identity, then that person is sometimes said to be suffering from false memory syndrome. It isn’t yet an officially recognized disorder — in fact, the very concept is still controversial — but the effects and mechanisms are well understood. To clarify: no one disputes that false memories occur, but many experts doubt that an actual syndrome exists.


We typically find counter-memories not in the pages of books, but in stories told around campfires, in slave songs, in rumors told by maids and washerwomen, in man-to-man talks between fathers and sons. They are counter-truths held by counter-cultures — alternate histories kept alive in oral tradition and social memory.

The second term I’ve been bumping into while reading works by the Memory Mavens is counter-memory (which often appears in the literature as one word, without the hyphen). This term of art goes back to the French Philosopher Michel Foucault, first revealed in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. At the risk of oversimplifying Foucault, we could define the term the same way that Natalie Zemon Davis and Randolf Starn described it in their introduction to a highly influential issue of the journal Representations. In issue 26, “Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory” (Spring 1989), they wrote:

The “counter-memory” of our title is meant to suggest that memory operates under the pressure of challenges and alternatives. A private fetish or a public injunction to forget — a decree of amnesty would be an instance of a politics of forgetting — are forms of counter-memory; for Michel Foucault counter-memory designated the residual or resistant strains that withstand official versions of historical continuity. The precise terms and definitions are less important to us here than the working principle that whenever memory is invoked we should be asking ourselves: by whom, where, in which context, against what? (Davis and Starn, 1989, p. 2)

Hence, counter-memory constitutes the opposite of written, sanctioned history. We typically find counter-memories not in the pages of books, but in stories told around campfires, in slave songs, in rumors told by maids and washerwomen, in man-to-man talks between fathers and sons. They are counter-truths held by counter-cultures — alternate histories kept alive in oral tradition and social memory.

Counter-memories are the stories of people who disagree with the often sanitized histories written at the behest of ruling elites. Consider, for example, Foucault’s description of what prisoners had to say about prisons.

And when the prisoners began to speak, they possessed an individual theory of prisons, the penal system, and justice. It is this form of discourse which ultimately matters, a discourse against power, the counter-discourse of prisoners and those we call delinquents — and not a theory about delinquency. (Foucault, 1980, p. 209)

Where the official history tends to whitewash events, emphasizing stories that make the majority feel good about themselves and their ancestors, counter-memory keeps the stories of people at the margins alive. While Alabama textbooks in the 1970s talked about slavery being “the earliest form of social security in the United States,” the children and grandchildren of slaves remembered the forced migrations; the separations of people from their homes, wife from husband, child from mother; and the applications of the whip, the branding iron, the noose.

Alabama Textbook
Alabama Textbook (Credit: Bree Newsome)

Le Donne’s Use of “Counter-Memory”

In Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It? Anthony Le Donne cautions the reader about the use and overuse of historical criteria in Jesus history research. In this warning he is not alone — Memory Mavens in general have a low regard for criteria of authenticity. Instead, they propose a nebulous “memory approach.” He writes:

Many previous generations of “modern” historians tended to look at these criteria as a way of locating an authentic past reality — as if a core of past events could be stripped of all interpretive agendas and treated like bedrock artifact. If these criteria are to be useful, historians must realize that history always must be about explaining how memory emerges and evolves. These criteria cannot uncover historical facts that are devoid of perception and memory. What they offer is a window into the dynamic give and take between memory and counter-memory in social discourse. As such, these criteria can give a better way to navigate between memory and invention. (Le Donne, 2011, pp. 50-51, emphasis mine)

In this fairly short paragraph, we see some of the more obvious problems with memory research as it is currently practiced within NT scholarship. When he writes “devoid of perception and memory,” he’s talking about the typical human weaknesses involved with our perception systems, cognition, and recall. Presumably, he’s referring not simply to individual memory (recollection), but the effects of social memory.

His colleague, Chris Keith, usually employs more careful and direct language. He would have said something like: “These criteria cannot reveal historical facts that are devoid of interpretation.” This deepity is de rigueur among the Memory Mavens. They congratulate themselves on “discovering” that all knowledge is mediated by our senses and that memories are interpreted in light of our personal and social experiences. Much like adolescents who discover that manners are nothing more than arbitrary social norms and libertarians who have an epiphany over Robert Heinlein’s TANSTAAFL (“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch!”) they have learned something radical and life-changing . . . . that everyone else already knew.

Unlike Keith, who claims to have jettisoned the criteria approach completely, Le Donne is willing to use historical criteria if they suit his purpose and as long as they take a back seat to “memory.” I put that last word in scare quotes, because far too often in Mavens’ writings, when they invoke memory, it isn’t clear whether they’re talking about the human faculty of memory, a specific recollection by specific people, or social memory. For example, the last sentence in the above quotation talks about the need to “navigate between memory and invention.” He cannot mean social or collective memory, because those elements can be true or false. In other words, some social memories are inventions.

Therefore, Le Donne must mean an authentic recollection that has been somehow preserved in the tradition. But if that’s the case, then what’s the point of all the Memory Maven ballyhoo about social memory? There is no difference here between what Le Donne is saying and what scholars said a century ago concerning tradition — that it is either secondary or goes back to an underlying oral source.

Returning to the main point of this post, we note Le Donne’s assertion that the criteria reveal “the dynamic give and take between memory and counter-memory.” This is the first occurrence of the term counter-memory in the book. Introducing it on page 51, Le Donne neglects to define it, and ignores the topic until page 128, when he takes up the subject of Jesus’ prophecy of the Temple’s destruction.

John takes this saying in one direction and Mark takes it in a different direction. This is what memory theorists might call “counter-memories.” Mark is convinced that Jesus has been misunderstood and tells a story to set the record straight. John sees this saying in new light and tells a story to draw out the “true” meaning of the saying. Both are trying to counteract a previous interpretation of the Temple saying. (Le Donne, 2011, p. 128, emphasis mine)

That statement is simply wrong. Memory theorists outside the Biblical guild, working as philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, or historians, would not call Mark’s and John’s reinterpretations “counter-memories,” because they have read Foucault and the social theorists and philosophers who have followed on. I suspect that Le Donne does not take the time to define the term, because he is not aware that it is a term. For him, it is no different from using “argument vs. counterargument” or (as above) “act vs. counteract.”

Mnemonic evidence?

Le Donne writes:

This is the task of the historian within a postmodern paradigm. The historian’s job is to tell the stories of memory in a way that most plausibly accounts for the available mnemonic evidence. With this in mind, the historical Jesus is not veiled by the interpretations of him. He is most available for analysis when these interpretations are most pronounced. Therefore, the historical Jesus is clearly seen through the lenses of editorial agenda, theological reflection, and intentional counter-memory. (Le Donne, 2011, p. 128, emphasis mine)

However, within the social sciences counter-memory means more than just reinterpreting a memory. Anyone claiming to work “within a postmodern paradigm” ought to know that.

The above paragraph reveals still more problems with Memory Mavens’ work. He argues that we need to account “for the available mnemonic evidence.” The Mavens treat the gospels as collections of memories, and they may indeed contain recollections; however, first and foremost, they are written texts that contain stories and sayings. Some of those stories and sayings may be traditions that the authors received from oral or written sources, and some of those traditions may go back to (reconstructed) primary sources. And finally, some of this primary source material may contain memories. Some of those memories may be authentic recollections, while others may be social memories that tell us more about the communities of believers who came after Jesus than about Jesus himself.

Calling everything in the gospels “mnemonic evidence” is even less helpful than calling it “tradition.” In the end, of course, one could argue that everything in the NT is a memory, because somebody at some point — either before or after it was written — remembered it, even if it never really happened. But if that’s the case, then what’s the point of Le Donne’s call for us to “navigate between memory and invention“?

Could Le Donne be accidentally correct? Could Mark and John’s stories of Jesus’ prophecies concerning the temple really be counter-memories? Absolutely not. At best, the rumor that said Jesus had predicted he would destroy the temple was not widespread, and mostly unknown outside the circle of Jesus’ followers; at worst it was merely part of Mark’s fiction, tightly bound to Jesus’ vaticinium ex eventu. I consider the latter more likely, since Paul’s letters and all the epistles, for that matter, have no idea about this supposed rumor.

Even in the best case, we have no evidence at all that any official history of the time accused Jesus of wanting to destroy the temple. The supposed counterarguments offered by Mark and John became, of course, the collective memories of the communities that produced, maintained, and copied those gospels. But they are not counter-memories in the Foucaultian sense.

Le Donne’s fellow Memory Maven, Tom Thatcher, is much closer to the truth when he writes:

Specifically, in Foucault’s conception a countermemory is not simply a different idea about the past — “you say X happened, I say Y happened” — but rather an alternate means of constructing the past, a different way of remembering. Countermemories do not necessarily dispute facts about the past; they reconfigure those facts by realigning the very frameworks on which memories are built. (Thatcher, 2006, p. 76, emphasis mine)

Thatcher is right

While I disagree with much of what Thatcher says in Why John Wrote a Gospel, he understands counter-memory much more clearly than Le Donne. In Le Donne’s embarrassing “spiraling trajectory” model, his supposed “counter-memories” of Mark and John are simply alternate interpretations. “The ‘Jews’ thought they heard ‘X,’ but Jesus really said ‘Y.'” Mark and John have different ideas about the contents of “Y,” but they don’t use “an alternate means of constructing the past.”

Thatcher reminds us that counter-memory may rely on indisputable facts, but the framework upon which the outsider community lays those facts is a radical reconfiguration of the mainstream’s framework. He cites Ann Burlein’s phenomenal work, Lift High the Cross, in which she explains how the Ku Klux Klan appropriated facts and memories from the mainstream to create their own alternate reality. The KKK demonstrate how groups can take counter-memories to pathological extremes. She writes:

This romanticization is rooted in the polemic against traditional notions of history that shaped Foucault’s coinage of the term countermemory. Yet this critique of Foucault itself owes much to his later work on power, which implies that countermemories cannot exist outside the hegemonic memories they seek to contest, break open, and cut through. Instead, countermemories take shape within mainstream cultural memories that are not monolithic but heterogeneous. Such memories are counter-, not because they are foreign to the mainstream, but because they draw on mainstream currents in order to redirect their flow. (Burlein, 2002, p. 217)

Given that Thatcher has a much better understanding of Foucault, you might presume, given the fact he read and reviewed Le Donne’s work before publication, that he would have corrected him. But you’d be wrong. In his review of Historical Jesus, he writes:

A provocative look at the next wave of study of the Jesus of history. Accessible to general readers yet up to date with the latest developments in the field, Le Donne grounds his understanding of Jesus both in ancient sources and in a careful consideration of contemporary philosophy. Appealing to postmodernism as a way to better understand human perception, memory, and narrative, Le Donne gives us a high-tech look at the ancient and early stories of Jesus’ life. He anchors Jesus carefully in the past but allows him to speak meaningfully to the present. (emphasis mine)

Once again, peer review in NT scholarship has failed us, and we are left to deal with the aftermath. Unfortunately, the lay public will have no idea, the guild won’t care, and the misinformation will continue to spread.


As we have seen before on Vridar, today’s Neutestamentlers like to dabble in the social sciences, often with disastrous results. For example, Maurice Casey, taking his cue from the Context Group, discovered the concept of high context cultures while skimming Edward Hall’s Beyond Culture, and ran with it. See our posts:

Consider how badly some scholars have represented the work of oral historian Jan Vansina. It would almost be funny, if these people weren’t teaching students for a living.

Now they’re monkeying around with memory theory and many of them are stumbling badly. Bart Ehrman’s entry into the field troubles me most, because although his grasp of the subjects involved is no worse than the other Memory Mavens, his reputation as a popular author will spread the problems farther. Back when only bloggers like James McGrath were disunderstanding Earl Doherty’s work, hundreds were misinformed. But when Ehrman jumped in with Did Jesus Exist? thousands or perhaps millions got a mangled interpretation of mythicism.

And it should surprise no one, but I don’t expect Vridar to have much effect on the status quo. As we’ve said before, we’re mainly here to document what’s happening and hope that future generations will carry on.

Berlein, Ann

Lift High the Cross: Where White Supremacy and the Christian Right Converge, Duke University Press Books, 2002

Brainerd, C.J. and Reyna, V.F.

The Science of False Memory (Oxford Psychology Series), Oxford University Press, 2005

Davis, Natalie Zemon and Starn, Randolf

“Introduction,” Representations, No. 26, “Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory (Spring, 1989)

Foucault, Michel

Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, Cornell University Press, 1980

Le Donne, Anthony

Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011

Thatcher, Tom

Why John Wrote a Gospel: Jesus – Memory – History, Westminster/John Knox Press,U.S, 2006

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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13 thoughts on “The Memory Mavens, Part 7: When Terms Matter”

  1. Ditto to KK. I’m wondering, Tim, if some of your posts could be edited and submitted for formal publication to peer-review journals/online sites. The responses might be interesting.

      1. I agree with Neil. One reason these half-baked ideas proliferate is because the actual experts, for example Vansina, are not all that interested in Christian studies, or if they are, are not themselves experts in that material. So these fad-like trends can thrive without a dousing of reality. It seems to me that Tim is doing publication level work here. I remember reading Teeple’s article on the oral history fad and it was absolutely eye-opening. It took a couple (few) decades to sink in that oral history wasn’t the magic bullet. Memory theory explanations seem even more nebulous.

    1. Bible and Interpretation seems the obvious choice. I was glad to see Neil mention possibly submitting a complete article reply to McG’s latest.

  2. “There are no facts, just interpretations”. This observation by Nietzsche can be misused take deconstruction of “history” not so much towards a pyrrhonist wilderness but towards a propaganda tool in the hands of whichever interest commands the discourse; e.g. the “racists” or “theologians” of yesteryear replaced by the “egalitarians” and “atheists” of today. For an example of the proposed method and its hegemonic purpose, see e.g. Edward Said, “Orientalism Reconsidered”, Race & Class, Autumn 1985, esp. p.15. For one critique some aspects of the process, see Alan Socal & Jan Bricmont, “Fashionable Nonsense” (NY 1998).

      1. I take seriously “deconstruction” in areas other than religious theorizing, e.g. its adverse impacts on literary appreciation at university level. (Our previous local Anglican parish minister, incidentally, was/is a “non-theist” who nevertheless regarded Jesus simply as some kind of long-ago exemplar of [post]modern global race-gender-class revolution, and selected bits of the NT he liked.) The long process of pick & mix in the use of “text” for fashionable spin, or to hang successive ideologies on an anciently “famous” peg, goes on and on (Matthew 28.20b!!)….Proteus of Nazareth has innumerable diverse “resurrections”!

  3. Great post (so far). Stopped reading to correct two items. Two sentences are repeated before and after the Davis and Starn quote. And your quote about slavery is the first form of social security capitalizes SS incorrectly. Back to reading.

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